But yesterday proved me wrong, and I’m sad
I could have grabbed the strap to my shoulder bag at any time
The leather tote that held my small purse, laptop, iPad, and journal hung by one of its straps from my shoulder as I tugged my carry-on out of the overhead compartment. “I should fix that,” I thought. But the people behind me were waiting to join the slow queue shuffling down the aisle toward the jetway. I left the outer strap hanging as I steered my suitcase ahead of me like a sleepwalking toddler.
Out in the terminal, I noticed the rogue strap again. “Should grab that,” I thought, as the tote’s wide-open maw freely revealed its hard-to-replace contents. But I spotted the restroom I was looking for and veered off for a comfort stop. Once that was accomplished and I’d put myself back together, both straps were where they should be, over my shoulder. I towed my obedient wheelie through the terminal in step with a random but purposeful parade of humanity.
Soon, though, I felt the need to rummage in my tote with one hand in order to fish out my phone, while maintaining my airport stride. As I thumbed an order into a ride-share app, I half-noticed that the tote’s outer handle had slipped off my shoulder again. “I should grab it,” I half-thought. But my attention was diverted: the rideshare app didn’t seem to recognize my destination.
The crowd dispersed as I exited the terminal into bright sunshine. The app had by now decided that the address I’d given it was indeed legitimate. It had summoned a driver to meet me at the designated pick-up location. I shoved my phone in my pocket, re-engaging with my surroundings as I looked for the correct traffic island. I passed lots of people as I walked, all ages, all descriptions.
One man I passed leaned against a pillar. He had the look common to people waiting for a ride from the airport: a combination of boredom, patience, and expectation. I half-noticed, but registered, that he was Black.
I pulled the loose strap back up over my shoulder
My thumb was still hooked under the tote’s handle as I realized what I had just done. It had been an automatic, unthinking gesture, an adjustment to my stuff that I’d made before and had intended to make again. I just hadn’t bothered until that moment.
But why that moment? What was different about it from the preceding moments as I walked among scores, maybe hundreds, of strangers? I didn’t want to believe that my sudden need to secure my stuff was connected to having just walked past a Black man. He was a fellow passenger, utterly non-threatening during my fraction-of-a-second glance in his direction.
Yet something triggered my unthinking strap-grabbing. What else could it be? Isabel Wilkerson, in her brilliant book Caste: the Origins of our Discontent, likens racism to systemic pollution. The level of its toxins you’ve absorbed depend on many factors including where and how and among whom you grew up. But none of us in America arrive at adulthood entirely free of its poison.
I didn’t want to commit a microaggression, but I did
And once I’d done it, I couldn’t undo it. I hope that man didn’t notice. I hope he wasn’t looking at me or anywhere near me; he certainly didn’t seem to be. I hope my quick, unconsciously nasty little gesture of self-protection didn’t register with him.
If it did, it probably joined a long list of tiny barbs, unwarranted insults that he’s been confronted with his whole life. Assuming, that is, he’s American too: I have no way to know. Anyway, I just kept walking. It would have been a further insult if I’d stopped to explain and apologize. That could only have befuddled him at best and irritated him at worst. My dismay at my failure in anti-racism is my problem, not his.
My only option is to recognize what I did for what it was
It doesn’t feel good to acknowledge that racism still infects my system, despite my eagerness to eradicate it. It makes me feel weak, cowardly, ashamed, and a certain category of stupid. Berating myself, however, doesn’t do much to solve the situation. There are so many ways my good intentions could devolve into hand-wringing, self-flagellation, or woeful virtue-flag waving, things that serve no one.
But denial, I am sure, is worse. I could settle for the comforting fiction that my purse-clutching behavior just happened to coincide with walking past a Black man. I could discount as mere imagination the automatic threat response that my visual cortex, upon seeing and identifying another person as Black, sent to my amygdala.
I might feel better if I did that. But I would miss the only opportunity I have to change. If I can spot and then face the effects of my cultural poisoning, then perhaps, with time and vigilance, I’ll develop something like an antidote.